February 13, 2018
by Katherine Eitel Belt
Lessons in leadership show up in unlikely places. As the mother of two rough and tumble boys, one of life’s greatest gifts was unexpectedly having to raise my niece, Carrie, from the age of five. While I’ve cheered at baseball games, marveled at snowboarding feats, and watched with one eye open at the motocross competitions of my boys, Carrie brought the pleasure of classical cello recitals and junior orchestra competitions. Her love for music introduced our family to a new kind of competition… one where individual achievement is acknowledged but never sounds as triumphant as when all the individuals play in harmony together.
As a teenager, Carrie joined a small community orchestra funded solely by parents and fundraising efforts. The first day of rehearsals, a soft-spoken, petite conductor, Miss Lee, announced that they would be competing in a county-wide youth competition. As I looked around at 80 giggling, half-listening teenagers from all walks of life, they seemed an unlikely group to win any award, let alone a first-place orchestra award. Miss Lee definitely had her work cut out for her.
A hush fell over the noisy room as she went on to say, “I have one crystal-clear objective: helping you become a first-place orchestra. We have four months to prepare, and it will not be easy. Some of you will not make it because you aren’t willing to do what it takes. I will be meeting with each of you individually to find out your level of commitment. Think hard on it. The competition is stiff. Last year, the winning orchestra went on to win at the national level. We will be competing with larger, school-funded orchestras who enjoy daily school rehearsals, instrument loans, summer orchestra camps, and beautiful coordinated uniforms. This orchestra will have to furnish their own clothes, buy and maintain their own instruments, have weekly Saturday morning rehearsals, learn their music and practice on their own. You will work very, very hard, but I promise you this: those of you who commit to this effort will never forget the music we will make together.”
It took Miss Lee nearly the entire first rehearsal to get the group seated, instruments ready, and sheet music distributed. From the collective moaning, we parents assumed it was a difficult selection. I certainly could not have recognized Holland’s Opus or Beethoven’s 5th from the sounds they produced before dismissal that day.
For months before the orchestra competition, tutors worked with individual groups of instruments, but when the groups came together, one conductor had to lead them all. This leader was the conduit through which all individual effort melded into one beautiful piece of music. It was up to her to bring out the best in every player… in every child. She had to share her vision. She had to ask for their undying commitment to do what it would take to win the event. She had to speak frankly with those who did not. She had to coach them through their struggles. She asked for each to be a leader to their co-musicians. She had to make sure everyone was playing from the same sheet of music.
That year at the competition, there were many incredible orchestras and flamboyant conductors. Miss Lee’s style? She was calm, confident, no-nonsense, and expectant. Minutes before they were to go on stage, Miss Lee spoke privately to the group. “Four months ago, I shared with you my vision. You have exceeded my expectations. Regardless of the score we garner tonight from the judges, you have accomplished that vision. You have met the challenge. You are a first-place orchestra in every way that matters. I hope you will never forget the time we’ve spent together and the music we will make tonight.”
Those kids would have done anything for Miss Lee and would have followed her anywhere she led. In just a matter of a few months, she had artfully and skillfully gained their trust and respect, brought out their pride and passion for a vision she made crystal clear, taught them to support and count on one another, and inspired them to reach for heights of which most would have thought them incapable of reaching… including themselves.
What does this story have to do with running an efficient, profitable business or dental clinic? A lot, I think. I’m not saying that professional dental teams are like orchestras. What I am saying is that people are people, and that the keys to motivating them, uniting them, and getting them to perform at their highest potential are pretty much the same whether they’re playing in an 80-piece orchestra or working on a team that treats and cares for patients.
As a communications coach, I have seen leaders on both sides of the effectiveness scale. I’ve had the privilege to work with some extraordinary leaders and have personally experienced what the hand of leadership genius can do. Are these leaders and people, like Miss Lee, born with these skills or can they be taught and learned? I believe they can be taught. In my studies of great leaders and in my experience of observing and coaching many in North America and Europe, I’ve come to believe that the best leaders are aware of and play to their natural strengths, and they commit to learning and mastering the rest.
The best dental teams are comprised of great personal leaders in every position and they are guided by strong, capable leaders at the helm. If you’d like to up your personal leadership game, here are six common traits which Miss Lee and other extraordinary leaders like her have mastered:
Curiosity: It’s been said that if you only have meaningful conversations with people who already and always agree with you, you’ll limit yourself to a very small sliver of humanity and grossly inhibit your ability to explore and leverage new and creative ideas. Great leaders are genuinely curious about other points of view, different perspectives, and new ideas. They ask thoughtful, exploratory, and important questions of their colleagues, clients, advisors, and co-workers in an effort to expand their viewpoints and access rich possibilities. They also encourage team members to speak up and contribute opposing viewpoints. They are humble and know that they do not know it all. They know they are always evolving and expanding their base of knowledge.
Fairness and Consistency: People appreciate straight talk from leaders so hold your team members accountable, set the bar high, and give employees support to reach for that standard. Honest, immediate, and specific feedback is invaluable to team members, but don’t expect perfection. It’s an impossible standard. Do expect measurable improvement. Former Dallas Cowboy football coach, Bill Parcels, says about leaders, “You have to be honest with people. You have to tell them the truth about their performance, you have to tell them face-to-face, and you have to tell them over and over again. And then, you let them know you believe in them 100%.” Learning accountability and communication tools like Managing by Agreement allows us to treat everyone we lead in a consistent, less emotional, and non-judgmental fashion.
Fairness is a huge asset for becoming a great leader. It builds trust. But, trust is easily eroded if your words do not match your actions consistently or you have a double standard when it comes to dealing with your employees, teammates, or even suppliers. It goes without saying that employees and team members are watching not only our example and measuring our choices, but they’re also taking stock of how we treat others. Great leaders walk their talk. Never expect from an employee or co-worker what you don’t expect from yourself. Professionalism, honesty, and commitment are traits we must demonstrate if we are to receive them from our teams. At the end of the day, character is the core competency of leadership.
High E.Q.: The third characteristic for great leadership is understanding how to connect with people in a meaningful way. This doesn’t necessarily mean spending more time with them. It means knowing how to make the time you do spend with them feel rich and relational. It means listening and responding in a way that your folks feel heard and understood. Having a high emotional intelligence allows you to show up in your conversations focused, present, and approachable while still being effective and efficient with your time. Similar to being curious, being truly present when we attend meetings or have crucial conversations and learning to listen and exchange information with a high degree of emotional intelligence allows us to become highly effective leaders.
Encouraging: Make sure your employees know you believe in them. Many of the football players that Bill Parcels coached say they remember one line that he often said to them, “I believe in you more than you believe in you.” People can do more than they think they can, and people want to work for and with great leaders who are thoughtful and encouraging. There is a big difference between giving praise and giving encouragement. When you are specific about the exact thing you want to encourage, that behavior tends to increase. Additionally, highlighting how that behavior enhanced or benefited the team or the goals as well as simply saying thank you and expressing your gratitude increases the likelihood of a repeat performance.
Clear and Decisive: Great leaders know that their job as a communicator is to create clarity and inspiration every time they speak. People are repelled by confusion and drawn like a magnet to clarity, especially when they are personally inspired to act. Leaders must have a crystal clear vision. If you cannot clearly articulate your vision to others, they will follow their own path. Once you’re clear, you must ask each individual for their commitment to accomplishing the dream. Be specific about their role, what commitment will mean, and anticipated rewards. Don’t expect them to care about the business the same way you do, but do expect them to be dedicated to, and excited about, the vision. In the movie, “Miracle”, the coach of the Olympic hockey team said, “I’m not looking for the best players… I’m looking for the right players.”
In addition, while great leaders do entertain and carefully consider other viewpoints and opinions, they know at some point they must make a decision. Teams generally understand this, and furthermore, expect it. More than anything, teams want leaders who can make a decision after they feel their contributions were heard and considered. They also appreciate leaders who are willing to admit that some decisions turn out to be a mistake and accept the responsibility for it.
Passionate: Lastly, a key characteristic to great leadership is passion. It’s almost impossible to resist following someone who is enthusiastic and genuinely excited about the vision, mission, and strategies of a team. Other leadership shortcomings and missteps will often be forgiven quickly if a leader gets this final trait really, truly right.
So, I know what you’re wondering… did Miss Lee and her fledgling orchestra win the competition? No, but they did get a respectable honorable mention out of a dozen much larger and more experienced groups. She, the kids, and their parents were thrilled. It was a true testament to the power of great personal leadership. You can do the same with your band of brothers in the dental office. And, if you do, you’ll serve your patients better while driving up your own levels of personal satisfaction at work.
About the Author
Katherine Eitel Belt is an international speaker, author, and communications coach in the US, Canada, and the UK. She is the creator of The Lioness Principle and founder of LionSpeak, a revolutionary training company helping dental and discretionary healthcare professionals access and harness intuitive leadership and phenomenal, un-scripted communication skills. www.LionSpeak.net